New Perspectives on Twentieth-Century African American Women’s History
This panel offers new perspectives and approaches to the study of twentieth century African American women’s history. The four presenters will analyze how African American women, working in different social and economic contexts, confronted racial and sexual discrimination, asserted their political agency, and affirmed their citizenship through a wide range of protest strategies and tactics. Focusing on different regions and employing a variety of research methodologies, the four papers capture the complexities of African American women’s experiences in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. LaShawn D. Harris (Assistant Professor of History, Michigan State University) will examine the lives of southern working-class African American women during the Nadir. Drawing on the legal papers of the Commonwealth of Virginia v. Virginia Christian (1912), Harris’s paper will explore the murder trial and execution of sixteen year-old African American laundress Virginia Christian, assessing Christian’s use of lethal violence as a survival and resistance strategy against white oppression. Keisha N. Blain (Ph.D. Candidate in History, Princeton University) will discuss the social and political activism of Black nationalist women in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Drawing on archival collections, newspaper articles, and FBI files, Blain’s paper will highlight how women drew on “inspirational Garveyism” after the decline of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Jewell Debnam (Ph.D. Candidate in History, Michigan State University) will chart Black women’s leadership and participation in the 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike. In this paper, Debnam will assess how Black women activists in South Carolina from various socio-economic backgrounds crafted a wide range of strategies to secure racial and economic justice during the Civil Rights-Black Power era. Finally, Ashley Farmer (Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies, Harvard University) will examine how Black radical women constructed gendered nationalist identities during the 1950s and 1960s. Using the political cartoons and artwork of women in the Black Panther Party, Farmer’s paper will shed light on how radical women activists shaped public discourse and perceptions of Black nationalism during the Black Power movement. As Chair, Sharon Harley (Associate Professor of African American Studies, University of Maryland, College Park) will draw upon her extensive research and expertise on the history of Black women, and the relationship between gender, labor, and racial politics.